EAST OF EDEN
Where bigger keeps getting better and better.
By Andy Clurfeld
Photography by Daryl Stone
Tops may be the most appropriately named place to eat in the world. Or, at least, in the sphere that includes the greater Newark environs. Born in 1942 and a fixture in East Newark ever since, Tops Diner is used to winning best-this and most-famous-that awards. It’s a given, a shrug, an acceptance of the diner’s superiority when it comes to plain old good places to eat.
The Golemis family, proprietors since 1972, take pride in procuring top-notch ingredients and handling them with care in the kitchen. It’s a proven formula. That’s why the 164 seats they offer patrons typically are filled, whether it’s midday Tuesday, midnight Saturday or pre-dinner rush Thursday. If you don’t like waiting for a table when you go to a diner, go elsewhere. The rest of the 12,000 folks—the estimate of our ambassador of a server—who come through the doors of Tops each week won’t miss you.
If Tops sounds a little bit like a scene from summer’s sell-out rock concert, well, it could be. Would be if it weren’t for the precision of the kitchen and floor crews who keep things spinning like—oh, geesh, I have to say this—a top. (If the word fits, use it.) On this anyday-lunchtime of our recent visit, Tops is as diverse at the United Nations, a characteristic also reflected on its menu. As we’re guided to our table after a scant 10-minute wait, we see families and business associates, gal pals and groups of guys who’ve ascended from their man caves, couples on dates and tourists who’ve come for the Jersey Disco Fries, solo acts, and dudes and dudettes in uniforms. They are eating from the quintessential diner-devised groaning platters, portions not dictated by dietitians but by the bloke who deigned at some point in the middle of the last century that the Jersey diner would dole out on a per-person basis the same kind of quantities fed to Godzilla.
We accept our not-too-far-in-the-future fate of leaving feeling like a foie gras goose after feeding time. What strikes me most, however, about the food I’m spying on my new neighbors’ plates is the cleanness and the apparent creativity. As a fan of Mustache Bill’s, a diner in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island, and Broad Street Diner in Keyport, two old-school-yet modern-day stalwarts also knighted with prestigious awards (Mustache Bill’s is a James Beard Award America’s Classics winner while Broad Street nabbed Pete Genovese’s coveted top prize in the most recent Star-Ledger/nj.com New Jersey Diner Showdown), I’m familiar with the out-with-the-grease, in-with-the-greens attitude of select diners of the 21st century. Tops seems to marry clean-green to whopping-portion. Is everybody happy?
Appears so, especially me, as I see about six dozen must-tries in my first look-through of the 15-page menu. No kidding: You can get as a mere starter guacamole made to order, as you would in a super-serious Mexican restaurant; shrimp and grits plied with cheese, as you would find down Carolina way; or chili con carne topped with crema and served with tortillas, as you would in the deep Southwest. We give a nod to our friends from South Jersey, who love most things Philly, including cheesesteaks and that city’s compact, but high-quality Chintatown. Philly Cheesesteak Eggrolls it is.
They are tasty little buggers, crammed with shaved steak, a load of sautéed peppers and onions, a bold smack of cheese and, as brighteners, specks of minced chives and a sassy sauce Tops dubs “Jimmy Lee.” Cajun Shrimp and Kale Salad wasn’t on any Paul Prudhomme menu that I remember, so I’m thinking someone in the kitchen here is not afraid of fusing flavors that topped food-trend lists some 30 years apart. It’s a great idea: The snap-crackle-pop of heat that dusts the shrimp does right by the tender leaves of earthy kale, enhancing the taste of the hearty green and unifying the dish in the process.
WHO’S THIS GUY?
Our server, who was most gracious about having his photo taken with and without food, wasn’t so keen on giving us his name. But you Tops regulars have to know this amiable ace who’d be at home in any four-star joint. He’s conversant in the menu. He brings extra napkins to the table in a single bound. He on top of water refills, remembering who gets what dish, keeping watch without hovering or interrupting conversation with a needless query. He’s been around Tops a long time, he told us, and if he doesn’t totally love his job, he’s awfully good at not letting that show. We enjoyed the time we spent with him. Especially since he didn’t once, not once, call anyone “Honey or Hon.” Tip of the hat to you, sir.
Seared Ahi Tuna Salad is sprightly and uber-fresh: There’s a confetti-like base of Napa cabbage and radicchio supporting accents of mango and peanuts, cilantro and avocado, all of which have at the gently peppered slices of tuna. A light vinaigrette balancing sesame and ginger neither dominates nor distracts from the essence of this salad.
Meanwhile, we’re finding ourselves distracted by the Short Rib Burger. Though all the beef burgers at Tops are a combo of ground chuck, brisket and short rib, this one is pure tender short rib slathered with barbecue sauce and crowned with grilled onions and a wash of softened Cheddar. A leaf of lettuce here, a slice of tomato there, and this layering weighs in as luxury on a bun.
The Monte Cristo, a personal favorite sandwich, isn’t listed in the two-page “Sammy” (a.k.a., sandwich) section on the menu, but as a breakfast special. I get it. Tops employs brioche dipped in the classic egg batter, then piles on the ham and turkey and melted Swiss cheese. Dusted with powdered sugar and served with strawberry preserves (the only off taste in the Tops repertoire we sampled; sub with maple syrup, please), it’s a Monte Cristo to remember for the expert melding of ordinary sandwich ingredients.
You’ve got to chuckle at a Joisey diner serving forth Northern Fried Chicken. Go, Garden State! A big-deal favorite at Tops, it’s a platter of chicken parts—half a free-range bird’s worth—rubbed with mildly incendiary spices, fried, then served with Mexican honey. It’s a trip, this dish, especially with its sides of mashed potatoes and gravy and a pert buttermilk biscuit rounding out the plate.
We’re given a separate menu for dessert. I’d had a hankering to order the Texas Hash (doesn’t chicken chunked up with bacon, potatoes, onions, peppers and shredded cheese sound good?) as my finale, but the kids suddenly have a second wind and are fixated on sweets. Bless ’em.
They dive into the Titanic Sundae, which could be called the Kitchen Sink Sundae or Ice Creams with Everything, XXXXL-Size. Coconut Custard Pie may not be the world’s greatest, but it’s got the key elements down; the crust could be a tad flakier and the custard infused with a bit more toasted coconut. A Mango Tres Leches Cake is a terrific take on the classic: The sweet fruit adds a tropical note that I never thought this dessert needed, but now realize it does. Bravo.
We haven’t touched the wine, spirits and beer list, though we checked out the Mango Madness smoothie and the sweet-tart lemonade. Fine, and fine. I make a list of what I truly regret not being able to order this go-round: the Ahi Ceviche, Texas Fries, Kale & Quinoa Salad, Smoke House Burger, Fat Club, Famous Jameis Meatloaf, Spicy Ginger Beef, Huevos Rancheros, Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, Granny Smith Pancakes.
Oh my gosh, I think to myself as we walk out of Tops. In my seesawing over Texas Hash vs. Dessert, I completely forgot I intended to order the basic breakfast side of Corned Beef Hash. It’s my personal barometer of Diner Credibility. Since I was a kid, I’ve rated diners by the quality of the corned beef hash.
Then I smile. Diners—led by Tops, and Mustache Bill’s, and Broad Street—have come a long way since a mash of meat and potatoes delighted 9-year-old me. Now Tops and its kin want their patrons to know many ingredients are sourced locally, pastries are baked in-house, and salads and vegetables are marquee players on the bill of fare. By virtue of the yeoman effort made at every stage of the diner game, Tops has earned its name.
And I bet they do make a mean corned beef hash.
500 Passaic Ave., East Newark • (973) 481-0490
Major credit cards accepted. No reservations. Open Sunday through Thursday from 6 to 1 a.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 to 2 a.m. Ample on-site parking, including an extensive lot behind the diner. Starters range in price from $4.49 to $17.99. Sides are $5. Salads are $8.99 to $17.99, while add-ons to any salad range from $5 to $8. Hamburgers are $7.99 to $15.99, with add-ons going for 75 cents to $1.50. Sandwiches (“Sammy’s” here) are $8.99 to $16.99. Pastas are $12.99 to $29.99. House favorites are $13.99 to $24.99. Chicken, ribs, beef and seafood entrees are $16.99 to $34.99. Breakfast specials are $8.50 to $13.99, while meat-’n’-eggs, Benny’s, French toast and waffles, omelets, hots cakes, cereals and yogurt range from $4.99 to to $20.99. Non-alocohlic beverages go from $2.49 to $7.49.